I woke up early this morning after too little sleep, ate breakfast, and scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed. Two posts caught my attention: The first was a short essay written by Leslie Leyland Fields, one of my faculty mentors in my Creative Writing MFA program, and the second was a video from Elite Daily shared by Derek, who graduated with me in the same program.
Leslie wrote about the fragmentation of writing into excerpts, snippets, and quotes that we consume plugged-in, as opposed to reading all of what an author has written, the “silent sustained reading” in elementary classrooms that many of us experienced as children. She urges us to pay attention to language, to read entire books, and to steep in their richness.
The video Derek shared posits that social media is increasing our loneliness, rather than fostering connection, not only because we “friend” more people than we can actually know well, but because we edit and finely craft our online images, and our resulting interactions are not authentic—they don’t allow for the mistakes and rambling and contradictions we make in face-to-face conversations.
I found these links thought provoking; especially at 8 am after 5 hours sleep.
What I know from my experience is that the snippets, excerpts, and quotes allow me to have some familiarity with classic literature that I was never exposed to in high school and college where I took non-traditional English courses like “Protest Literature” that synced with my political science and history courses, keeping me well away from the books most English and writing students read.
I also know that after years of encountering quotes from writers like Rilke and Hemingway, I sought out Letters to a Young Poet and A Moveable Feast (thin as they might be). And, as far as social media goes, it has kept me familiar, if not intimate with, the lives of friends and family I already knew and moved 900 miles away from. It has also allowed me to peak into the lives of elementary school friends I’d never encounter at a high school reunion, because I moved from my hometown just as I started high school.
I’m considered a baby boomer (barely) and I remember when letters sent through the USPS were my primary source of communicating with my father and grandparents and friends when I moved 500 miles away from my hometown as a teen, in an age when long distance phone calls were a rarity and short…and I know that those letters, just like a social media post, could not communicate the totality of who I was and the loneliness I experienced in my new town. I never expected them to.
And that’s what I wonder about now, for the people, like my children, who have had computers and the Internet in their lives for as long as they can remember—do they really expect and believe that cyber connections can fulfill all their needs for community? Do they only have the attention span for texts, tweets, and status updates, and find books archaic?
If my children are any indication, the answer is no. I remember back to their junior high school days, when my husband and I gave them their first cell phones (so we could track them after school): they were so afraid of missing any contact from a friend, they set their phones on the ledge of the bathtub between the shower curtain and shower liner. But, they always kept books next to their beds, and read a few pages before falling asleep each night.
These days, I’m on Facebook more than both of them combined. I blog and have a website and conduct business via email. They sit in offices and classrooms, have live conversations with other students and coworkers, and hang out with friends. They miss most of my calls because they’re busy doing something else.
I took a nap this morning after reading those Facebook links and had the most cinematic dream: I was flying down the middle of a residential street about six feet off the ground, and the sky all around me was filled with words, thousands of words, swirling like a small tornado of autumn leaves through the air.
As I travelled further, one side of the street was lined with UPS trucks, parked bumper-to-bumper, headed the direction I was traveling. The other side of the street was lined with Waste Management trucks, also parked bumper-to-bumper, facing the opposite direction. As fast as the words were delivered, they were being hauled away, and the sky was empty.
I travelled further along the street: the words disappeared, the trucks were gone, the sky a blank, everything silent. This was not a silence borne of plenty, a silence of gratitude, a silence we create in community out of abundance. It was a Simon and Garfunkel silence, a world devoid of meaning, a world without human connection.
I awoke thinking about Leslie’s essay and Derek’s video. Maybe the sound bytes we toss into the electronic air, condensed and prettified, are ultimately unsatisfying, but perhaps like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, they are simply markers meant to lead us to something more. Perhaps their meager fare is better than starving.